30 January 2013

Merrily We Roll Along - Menier Chocolate Theatre, Friday 25th January 2013


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Franklin Shepard: Mark Umbers
Charley Kringas: Damien Humbley
Mary Flynn: at this performance, Amy Ellen Richardson
Gussie Carnegie: Josefina Gabrielle
Meg Kincaid: Zizi Strallen (holy smoke, another Strallen)
Company: Ashley Robinson
Martin Callaghan
Amanda Minihan
Samantha Mercer
Matthew Barrow

Creative Team:
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by George Furth
Director: Maria Friedman
Design: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting: David Hersey


In Frank's swanky Los Angeles pad in 1976, after the premiere of his latest film, a party is in full swing. Frank's Hollywood peers are there, and bestow lavish praise on him. His long-term friend and a theatre critic, Mary Flynn, who is now an alcoholic, is also at the party. She is disgusted by the people Frank has chosen to associate with and by his abandonment of music - the one thing he was truly good at - for the world of commercial film producing. Frank admits that his new film is just a formula picture, but he promises: just wait for the next film! But Mary has given up waiting, and becomes progressively more inebriated. She is ordered to leave after insulting everyone.

Frank is stung by Mary's rants, because he knows they are true. He has concentrated so completely on being a "success" that everything (and everyone) he most valued at the beginning of his career has gone. The evening ends traumatically with the breakup of Frank's marriage to his wife Gussie, a former leading actress in one of his early musicals, when she viciously attacks Meg, whom he has been seeing on the side.

Back to 1973 Frank and his long-time friend and lyricist, Charley Kringas, are about to be interviewed in a New York TV studio. Mary greets Charley backstage and Charley tells her that Frank never has time to write shows anymore with him. Mary wonders plaintively why can't their collective friendship be "Like it Was". When Frank finally arrives and the TV interview begins, a nervous Charley launches into a rampage on the way his composer has transformed himself into "Franklin Shepard Inc." Frank disowns Charley and walks out - their friendship is over.

It's 1968, and Mary, Charley and Frank are in Frank's apartment on Central Park West. The two men fight over Frank's decision to do a movie version of one of their shows, Musical Husbands. Frank wants to do it for the money, but Charley says that it will get in the way of writing any new musicals for some time. Mary reminds them that they are all still old friends. But nothing is that simple anymore. The Broadway producer Joe Josephson and his wife Gussie arrive. She and Frank have been having an affair. When everyone leaves, Gussie shocks Frank by announcing that she intends to live with him and divorce Joe in the process.

1966, Frank is being divorced by Beth, and they fight over the custody of their young son in a courthouse. Beth confesses to him that she can't live with him knowing he is cheating on her with Gussie. Frank is then consoled by Mary, Charley and his other remaining friends. His pals convince him to start anew, stating that this was the "best thing that ever could have happened"

At the opening night of Musical Husbands, Gussie, having just discovered that Frank fancies her, is pondering what could come between the two of them. The scene transforms, and we see that Gussie is performing the song onstage, as the star of Musical Husbands. Meanwhile, the curtain comes down on the show. As the audience applauds, Charley and Frank, who are backstage with Joe, Mary and Beth, realize they have a hit.

In 1962 at a party in Gussie and Joe's elegant Sutton Place apartment. Gussie has thrown a soirée so that Frank and Charley, who are going to write a musical for Joe to produce, can meet most influential people in town. Pulling Frank away from the party-goers, Gussie convinces him to make his new musical, Musical Husbands, into a "big show". Returning to her guests, Gussie invites the songwriters to perform their latest song, "Good Thing Going". The guests love it. Gussie implores them to do an encore. Charley urges Frank not to, but Frank does so anyways. They play the song again, but the guests quickly lose interest and resume their noisy cocktail chatter. Charley storms out.

Time turns back to 1960, Charley, Frank and Beth are young and beginning their careers, playing a small nightclub in Greenwich Village. Trying to appear bright and sophisticated, they perform a song celebrating America's new First Family. Joe is in the tiny audience and he's quite impressed, as is his wife Gussie, who is strongly attracted to Frank at this first meeting. After the show, Frank explains to them that he's marrying Beth, and the happy couple exchanges vows. At an adjoining table, Mary is distraught; she'll always feel something for Frank.

In 1959 ("Merrily We Roll Along- Sixth Transition") Frank, Charley and Mary are busy in New York, working their way up the career ladder ("Opening Doors"). The men audition for Joe, but he wants more "hummable" tunes. So they decide to do their own show and in an ensuing musical montage, end up auditioning and hiring Beth and forming their small cabaret show together.

Finally, it is October 1957 . Early in the morning, Frank, Charley and Mary are on the roof of an old apartment house on New York City's 110th Street, waiting for the first-ever earth-orbiting satellite. Suddenly, Sputnik is there in the sky, and now, for the young friends, anything is possible.

23 January 2013

Exhibition review - "Hollywood Costume" - Victoria and Albert Museum, Monday 21st January 2013

Off through the snow to South Kensington for the final days of the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the V and A – as most certainly “NO PHOTOGRAPHY ALLOWED” I will be interspersing the text with photo stills from the relevant films to show you some of the iconic costumes on display. There will be a bit of ranting going on, so bear with me!

Firstly I have to have a rant about how badly we cope with snow in this country. I checked online before leaving home to see if the trains to Victoria were running OK – and apparently they were, with “minor delays”. So, off to the station to find that there was a Victoria train due in 8 minutes. Lovely. 2 minutes after it was due to arrive, the train just vanished from the departures board. No announcement – it just disappeared into thin air. The station announcer then told us to “Stand back from the platform edge as the next train is not in customer service”. That train then pulled in slowly to the platform and stopped. Despite it not being mentioned in any way on the departures board, it was apparently heading for Charing Cross. And this after four days of snow that had been forecast for at least a week. Still I suppose I should count myself lucky that I wasn’t expecting to fly out from Heathrow. I’ve always felt that, should the Germans ever decide to invade again, they wouldn’t have to bother with guns and bombs and stuff; they would just have to wait until 1/8th of an inch of snow fell on the UK and they would be able to simply walk in and find us all completely stranded with all transport links at a total standstill.
Never mind, even with delayed trains we still managed to get to the museum earlier than our scheduled time slot, so we had a bit of a wander round. I do find the V&A phenomenally dreary for some reason. Its better than it used to be - but it still reminds me of an enormous attic with lots of dusty old bits and pieces lying around. I suppose the best way to appreciate it is to go with something definite in mind that you really want to see, see it and then come away again, rather than just wandering round aimlessly and poking about among the piles of stuff. The standards of display seem to be improving considerably – but see below. One particular gallery that I’d never seen before and the name of which escapes me is an enormous semicircle set up as a kind of late-Renaissance street, with windows and doors and shopfronts, statues and street furniture all set in the context that you would have seen them in the original street. We wandered around the costume gallery but found it somewhat gloomy – apart from one section in which the late regency costumes had been displayed in an enormous niche, the surround of which had been intricately painted to make it look like a bamboo trellis with climbing plants against a skyscape; this made the costumed dummies appear like real people taking tea in the garden, and really made the costumes come alive. No other part of this gallery had been given this treatment and I wondered why.

The queue for the Hollywood Costumes exhibition was enormous – its been sold out for months and I was lucky to get tickets a while back. Its quite a big exhibition and there is lots to see – but the layout really lets it down. For what is the national museum of design and aesthetics, I always find the V&A exhibitions are badly, badly let down by their layout. Its all about how it looks, and there is never any consideration given to how people behave at an exhibition, how they move about (or in this case don’t move about) or any kind of thought given to how to accommodate large numbers of people effectively, allow them to see the exhibits but prevent logjams. Particularly frustrating at this exhibition (and many others that I’ve been to) is that the explanatory cards are always put on the floor. This means that in order to see it you have to shuffle around and crane your neck and bob about behind the inconsiderate person who plonks themselves in front of something and then just stands there. The V&A curators could really learn a lot from going to a big Disney theme park and seeing how to move people in a particular direction, giving them plenty to look at should the queue come to a halt.
The first room is particularly badly laid out. Its square, and the podiums (podia?) with the costumes standing on them run the width of the square. There are four of five of these and the dummies, all facing front, are ranged in two back-to-back rows on each podium. This means that the costumes can only really be seen from one side (never a back view), and because of the lack of directional flow, people are just milling about getting in each others’ way, clumping in front of something particularly interesting or viewing costumes in a completely random, scatter gun fashion depending on where the crowds are thinnest. Its frustrating in the extreme. Solution: make the podiums thinner (one costume deep). Alternate costumes to face front so they can be seen from the back as well.  Design a directional, non-negotiable flow system which moves everyone in the same direction, sending them in a series of S-shaped movements along the front of one podium, around the end, along the back of it in the opposite direction and repeat with the next podium (think of the directional post and tape arrangement you go through to get to the ticket desk at the cinema, or to a window at the post office). At the end of the last podium, allow people to move either forwards into the next display room or back to the beginning of the first room if desired. Place information cards on stands at waist level, not on the floor.
On the first podium, costumes are lit individually and in rotation, which is fine if you can walk along the row at the correct speed to keep up, but most people are standing in front of a costume, getting a quick glimpse of it and then waiting in front of it until it gets lit up again. As the very first costume in the exhibition is Vivien Leigh’s green “curtain” dress from Gone With The Wind, there are a lot of people waiting in front of it.(thankfully, none of the other podiums have been given this ridiculous lighting treatment) The more I look at it, the more I am convinced that the green and yellow tie-backs used as a belt are not the same ones as Leigh is wearing in the poor resolution still from the film mounted behind it Its crammed in next to a couple of beautiful costumes from The Last Emperor which I would love to inspect from all angles but I can only see them from the front. The final podium in this room is spectacular – there are period costumes from Shakespeare in Love, Mary, Queen of Scots, Marie Antoinette and Dangerous Liaisons - and because wigs and millinery are completely separate disciplines of costume design and therefore not, for the most part, displayed with the costumes, some considerable time and effort has been spent in recreating hairstyles and headgear with strips of elaborately curled and styled black paper. I like it.
The second, much larger room feels as if it has been curated by a completely different team of individuals. There are a series of large, waist high tables like the cutting benches you would find in a costume studio. They are lit from above to make it look as if there are things lying around on the top, there are props, one seated or standing dummy wearing a costume and interviews with their designers projected onto the solid backs of chairs arranged around the table. The attention to detail of the lighting is incredible – the first table showcases Tippi Hedren’s green skirt suit from “The Birds” and on it stands an empty birdcage, but its “shadow” contains the moving shadows of the two caged lovebirds Nixon takes across the bay in the motor boat. So the birds are there, but not there. On another table is a white ceramic ashtray – empty in reality but projected into it is an image of a couple of cigarette stubs. One of them is still lit and the “smoke” curls out of the ashtray and flows across the table. The trouble is that all the tables are quite close together and the resulting hubbub caused by all the interviews playing at once is horribly distracting. Each chair is “occupied” by a different interviewee, and they play alternately on each side of each table – so you are constantly dashing round each table to catch the next bit of the interview and so, unfortunately, is everyone else. On the opposite side of this room are three large centralised podiums with a number of costumes (all facing outwards again). This would be fine, but interspersed between the costumes are large waist height projection screens, showing clips of the films from which the costumes around them come. And of course, people are clumping in front of each screen, standing there until they have seen the clip selection all the way through. This means that progress around each podium is practically glacial. Slap bang next to costumes from two different renditions of Cleopatra is a display about computer generated “motion capture” filming and
how costumes are applied to animated figures. It’s a bit of a perspective shift to be looking at a costume worn by Claudette Colbert in the 1930s and at the same time have a narrator practically shouting at you about the latest technology on display three feet away. I finally realise that this is because the costumes on this podium are clumped according to (more or less) when the film is set and how new film technologies have changed the art of costume design over time. So a costume from the black and white 1930s film 42nd Street stands next to a costume from the 2010 film The Artist The two Cleopatra costumes are the “start point” on this podium and the motion capture “costumes” are the end point – but of course they are adjacent to each other because it’s a rectangular podium and you’ve walked all the way round it.

The last podium in this room is another gear shift. Instead of the mannequins being headless, each has a small square screen attached to it in the position where the wearer’s head would be. On these are projected moving images of the actor’s head as it appears in the film itself. It’s a clever idea, but I’m not sure it entirely works, nor is indeed necessary. On some, half the screen is obscured by a hat or other headdress and some of the screens are blank because the relevant projector isn’t working. I care not that there is only a week left for the show to run – get the bloody things going!
The third room again feels like a different team has curated it. Its in a completely different format from the first two and so feels like another clunky change of gear. It’s a more-or-less traditional “catwalk” approach with mannequins displayed facing front at different angles, sometimes two or three deep. The face-screens are there, the floor-bound information cards are there, the video clips are not there. I begin to notice that the V&A is playing jiggery-pokery with some of the costumes; the accessories are not the original ones but modern substitutes. And the attention to detail as regards these accessories is pretty damned poor. Kate Winslet’s beautiful “Embarkation” costume from Titanic is topped off with a hat far smaller than the one she wears in the film and with a brown patterned ribbon rather than the blue one from the film. Natalie Portman’s “Black Swan” costume from the film of the same name is accessorised with PINK pointe shoes when they should be black. Daniel Radcliffe’s Hogwarts costume is wearing a completely non-Gryffyndor tie. At the end turn of the catwalk is a semicircular podium that is almost completely bare, meaning that on the “home stretch”
towards the exit door, many of the mannequins are crammed together in too small a space to be properly appreciated. The most heinous consequence of this is that the two most arguably famous costumes in the entire show – Marilyn Monroe’s “subway grating” frock and Judy Garland’s iconic dress from The Wizard of Oz are shoved up against each other in a total “dogleg” where the podium turns at a right angle towards the exit. Monroe’s frock is the only one in the entire show presented in a glass case and the curators really missed a trick in not installing a fan in the floor to make the dress billow upwards in the way that most of us think of it and (poor) modern copies of the Ruby Slippers (not the real ones, as I notice the blurb is trumpeting)  are tucked away on the floor and easily missed as a result. If ever there were a pair of shoes that should be on their own waist height column covered in yellow brick-patterned paper, its these. Garland wore pale blue ankle socks in the film, but here the feet of the mannequin are wearing what look like strident royal blue football socks. Surely, surely these two costumes should have stood on their own on the semicircle at the end of the catwalk, where the desire of people to linger and look is not going to cause a jam right by the exit door?
There are some lovely – and iconic – examples of the costume designer’s art on show here. But the overall layout of the exhibition is messy, badly thought out and frustrating. And for the national museum dedicated to the history of design, that’s an absolute scandal.

10 January 2013

The Magistrate - National Theatre, Tuesday 1st January 2013

Some years before the play begins, Mr. Posket, a London magistrate, married a widow, Agatha Farringdon. At the time she had pretended to be 31 rather than her true age, which was 36. Accordingly, she found that she needed also to knock five years off the supposed age of her son by her first marriage, Cis Farringdon. When the play opens, the Poskets are preparing to entertain to dinner the following day an old friend of Posket, Colonel Lukyn. The Colonel knew Mrs. Posket in her earlier days, and is Cis's godfather. He is well aware of Mrs. Posket's true age. Fearful that the Colonel may be indiscreet about dates, she slips out that evening to see him privately. She takes with her her sister Charlotte who is staying with the Poskets for a few days, getting over a broken engagement.
Agatha's son Cis takes advantage of his mother's absence. Although he is supposed to be 14, he is in fact 19 without knowing it, and his precocity is far in advance of his supposed age. He smokes, he flirts, he gambles, and now, as soon as his mother has left, he coolly proposes to his staid stepfather that they should go to the Hôtel des Princes, where he keeps a room for the use of his friends. Posket allows himself to be persuaded.
Greatly to his surprise Posket finds himself "making a night of it". Colonel Lukyn has also arranged to dine at the Hôtel des Princes, with his friend Captain Horace Vale, the man who has broken Charlotte's heart.. When Agatha and Charlotte arrive to see the Colonel, there is a lengthy reconciliation scene between Vale and Charlotte. Equally lengthy are the carousings of Posket and Cis in the adjoining room – so much so that a breach of the licensing laws is committed and the police arrive to search the house
The landlord, having put out the lights, brings all his law-breaking guests into one room and bids them conceal themselves as best they can. Posket and his wife hide under the same table, each unaware of the other's identity. When the police burst in, Posket and Cis make a dash to the balcony, which collapses under their weight, depositing them in the street below. The others are all taken into custody.
Posket and Cis are chased by the police. Posket staggers back just in time to perform his magisterial duties at Mulberry Street court. He is tattered, bruised and dirty. He pretends to be much shocked when the chief clerk tells him that the first case he has to hear involves his friend Lukyn. Despite Lukyn's appeal, Posket permits no favours, and insists that the case must be tried in the normal way. On going into court, Posket is so shocked to find his wife in the dock that he finds himself, in a trance-like state, sentencing her to seven days' imprisonment without the option of a fine.
Posket's excessive sentence of his wife and the other guests at the hotel is overruled on a technicality by Posket's fellow magistrate, Bullamy. Back at home, Posket feels the force of his wife's indignation, but she cannot avoid explaining her presence at the hotel, and the truth about her deception about her age comes out.

Posket, a Magistrate - John Lithgow
Agatha, his wife, formerly Mrs. Farringdon - Nancy Carroll
Charlotte, her sister, formerly engaged to Captain Vale - Christina Cole
Cis Farringdon, her son by her first marriage - Joshua McGuire
Achille Blond, a hotelier - Don Gallagher
Beatie Tomlinson, a music teacher, in love with Cis Farringdon - Sarah Ovens
Colonel Lukyn, a former acquaintance of Agatha - Jonathan Coy
Captain Horace Vale - Nicholas Burns
Mr. Bullamy, Posket’s colleague - Nicholas Blane
Mr. Wormington, Posket’s Clerk - Roger Sloman
Popham, the Posket’s cook - Beverly Rudd
Sergeant Lugg- Sean McKenzie
Inspector Messiter - Peter Polycarpou

Director - Timothy Sheade
Designer - Katrina Lindsay
Lighting Designer- James Farncomb
Lyrics- Richard Stilgoe
Music - Richard Sisson
Movement Director- Liam Steel
Sound Designer- Paul Arditti
Vocal Arranger - David Shrubsole

Yes, its been over a week since I saw this, but I had to go into hospital shortly after New Year to have a small op and I’m only just now up and around (I don’t do inactivity very well, in fact I don’t do inactivity AT ALL). I can’t sit comfortably for very long, can’t lie down unless I’m completely flat on my back, can’t really lift anything heavy, certainly can’t do anything remotely useful and as for picking something up that I’ve dropped – have you ever seen a giraffe trying to take a drink??

Also, I was hampered slightly by this being on 1st January – out a little too late the night before, and as the auditorium was warm and dim, I caught myself nodding occasionally in that slightly drooly way you do sometimes when you are desperately fighting to stay awake. Not that the show was sending me to sleep, you understand. But my impression was a little hazy sometimes.

We should have been seeing The Count of Monte Cristo, which was scheduled to be the National’s Christmas show. But apparently there were problems with the script, the writer got the heebie jeebies and the whole thing had to be shelved. Consequently The Magistrate had to be moved up the pecking order to take its place, and as a result I felt that the festive element of the show felt a little bit crowbarred in and the jollity fell a little flat. You know that feeling when all the presents have been opened and you’ve sat and looked at them and played with them for an hour or so, and then someone starts to scoop up all the shreds of wrapping paper and begins muttering about having to get the dinner on?

For one terrible moment I thought that the entire production had been designed by Gerald Scarfe. Certainly he drew the picture on the programme cover, and to the untrained eye both the sets and the costumes looked as if he had designed them – lots of ink blots on the wallpaper, Mr. Whippy hairstyles and so on. But apparently not – Katrina Lindsay has done a good job of “sub-Scarfe”, slightly rounded-down and easier on the eye. The first set opens towards the audience like a huge Christmas card – clever in itself and deserving the round of applause it got. All the furniture has to be stuck down, of course, and apparently there was a slight amount of chaos at an earlier performance when some of it came adrift (which I would like to have seen). As a consequence, the other sets are a bit of a let down by comparison, and bear more than a trace of Dr. Seuss.

Everyone on stage did a good job, although I have to admit that John Lithgow left me a little cold. Apparently he was in something on TV called Third Rock from the Sun, which I never saw. Apparently it made him a big star. Meh. I did wonder why he had been cast in this most English of plays – a lot of the time his accent slipped precariously but he did some inspired clowning. I think Nancy Carroll rather walked off with the honours though, and I got terribly, terribly confused between the actors playing Captain Vale and Colonel Lukyn to the detriment of my understanding of the plot. Maybe I was just tired and not paying enough attention. Him Indoors thought that the direction was too broad, but then he’s never satisfied. It certainly didn’t bother me that much. And, in fact, now I look back at it, that really rather sums up my feelings towards the entire production. It didn’t bother me that much. It was inoffensive, nicely played, but a bit weak around the edges and not something I would put myself out to go and see again. In fact, the bit I enjoyed most was the clever sung interpolations – allegedly in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan but not noticeably so until the very last song at the end, when I picked up distinct allusions musically and verbally to the “Paradox trio” from The Pirates of Penzance, a patter song very much in the manner of “I am the very model of a modern major-general” and the clever mixing of two choruses, each sung at a different speed (a musical form which Sullivan is alleged to have invented – probably the best known example is “When the Foeman bears his steel”).  Sharp-eared G&S afficionados will probably pick up on a bit of dialogue which I swear Pinero stole from Iolanthe, in which a legal professional has to apply to himself in order to apply some legislation.

But the whole thing seems to fall between two stools. It’s of a style which is very much an acquired taste – rather wordy, elements of a comedy in the manner of J. B. Priestly (the “taking five years off your age with hilarious consequences” is very Priestly) overlaid with bits of farce, but not enough farce to make it a complete farce, if you follow. People laughed, I spotted that a couple of the audience didn’t come back after the interval, there was some decent applause at the end but it didn’t really set my world alight.